If I were brainstorming gifts for my son it's unlikely that a pencil holder would come to mind, but that's exactly what he's getting from me this Valentine's Day and I think he's going to love it. It all started with pottery classes, which I've been taking since September. My son has enjoyed watching my progress, taking particular delight in my mishaps since I am always reminding him that we get better at just about everything through practice. He mentioned recently that if I ever got past being able to make something other than bowls, I should make something for him. I think he suggested something totally ridiculous that I could never make in a million years, but I appreciate his confidence.
At any rate, I had purchased a wood grain texture mat and made a vase to use for the holidays, which I liked a lot and was continuing to experiment with, working to create a more organic, slumping profile that felt treelike. While making a slender vase and working with an unfamiliar clay, it stuck to my work surface, which tore jagged edges along the top. It reminded me of the hollow, jagged cypress tree trunks rising out of the swamps here and so I left the clay exactly as it was. And as I looked at that petite little vase, I thought it would make a cute pencil holder, which made me think of my son who's always looking for a pencil, and then I thought of the book The Giving Tree, which my son still enjoys even though he's moved on to chapter books, and then the fleeting memory of his little finger always tracing the heart outline on the tree in the book...and Voila! It was suddenly the perfect Valentine's gift. The red, personalized pencils I found on the Oriental Trading site sealed the deal. Red is his favorite color and I suspect he'll be very fond of seeing his name in print.
To continue this very long story, the pencil holder pictured here is not the one I'm giving him. His is made out of fired clay. But I thought I'd experiment and see if the technique for making the pencil holder out of pottery clay would work with air dry clay. Turns out, other than the glazing and firing, the process is exactly the same. Which means you can make a pencil holder or a vase or whatever vessel you might like. Just keep in mind that it won't be waterproof. If you want to use it as a vase, you'll need to line it with a glass or plastic container.
It's also a little more difficult to carve the heart into the air dry clay, but I made my initial carving when the clay was fresh and then went back after it had dried for a few hours and used a wooden skewer to make the carving more pronounced and clean up the raggedy edges. Overall, I think it worked almost as well as the fired version. Of course, if you have access to a kiln (some studios will allow you to pay just for firing) and some pottery clay you can make a more durable, waterproof version by following the same steps.
Step 1: Create a base. Roll out your clay (I used a wooden rolling pin) and use a round cookie or clay cutter to cut out a circle. I often cut it freehand, too, which can give you a more organic shape. Also, I made my base a good 1/4-inch thick since I wasn't sure how sturdy the air dry clay would be.
Step 2: Make slip. What I didn't know before I started taking pottery lessons was that "slip" is the glue that holds clay together. Otherwise, the clay simply won't adhere to itself and your piece will break apart. All slip is, is a mixture of the clay and some water. I found it a little harder to make slip with the air dry clay, but just keep working the water into the clay until it starts to feel sludgy.
Step 3: Roll out the clay to form the body of the tree trunk and press the wood grain texture mat into the clay, using your fingers or the rolling pin. Tip: You control how much texture the mat leaves by how firmly you press it into the clay. For this project, I made a very strong impression. For the holiday vase I made, I used a much lighter hand so that the wood grain was just barely visible. It's all up to you.
Step 4: If you wish to carve into the wood grain, this is the point at which I'd suggest doing so (I found it easier to do when the clay was flat). Use what you can find to work with - a toothpick, wooden skewer, etc. Just be gentle at first so you don't push right through your clay. Don't worry if the design looks a little messy, you can clean it up after the clay has firmed up a bit. Also, if you carve your heart in the middle of the clay, you can control the placement of it when you're shaping the clay into a cylinder.
Step 5: Trim any excess clay from the bottom edge so it's mostly even. You can use a clay knife, though the needle tool worked just fine.
Step 6: Scoring. I use a needle tool (found in craft stores), but you can use a toothpick or something with a sharp tip. Score around the base. This roughs up the clay so that the slip will cling to it, joining your pieces.
Step 7: Apply slip along the bottom edge of the wood grained piece. (You can use your fingers to smear it on.) You can see that my slip from the air dry clay is still a bit lumpy, but it didn't seem to matter.
Step 8: With the scored base in hand, begin rolling the wood grained piece of clay around the base to form a cylinder.
Step 9: When you've finished rolling your clay into a cylinder, trim the excess clay, leaving enough to overlap and form a seam.
Step 10: Score along the edge of the seam, as well as the area on the trunk where the seam will meet. (You can be a little neater than I was here. I had a camera in my hand at the same time.)
Stand the cylinder up and begin smoothing out the seam with your fingers so it's less linear and chunky.
Holding the cylinder gently in your hand, begin to smooth out the bottom as well so that you don't have a seam in the bottom.
This is what the cylinder looks like without further manipulation. It's too top heavy for me, so I'm going to go back and pinch clay from the top to create a rougher edge. I can also manipulate the shape of the opening if I want, just gentle pulling and pushing with my fingers.
Drying: I set my clay on a baking rack to dry, so that air can get under the piece at the same time. You can see after a few hours that the shape has started to set and that I've been able to clean up the heart carving a little more (You can also gently sand round edges after the clay is fully dry, using a fine grade sanding sponge.)
Here's the air dry version next to the fired version. The fired is a little whiter and brighter (I glazed with a Matte Opaque White), but the biggest difference lies in the carving. I suspect with a little practice that could get easier, too.
Finishing: (not shown) I used a liner paintbrush and some acrylic craft paint to fill in my carving after the clay was completely dry. Once the paint is dry, you can spray it with a clear acrylic spray (a fixative) to seal and protect it. You can find these supplies at most craft and art supply stores.
Clay: I use DAS brand air dry clay. It's my favorite of all the brands I've worked with. I buy mine at Michaels, but you can find it at multiple online sources, including Dick Blick.
Mat: If you like to work with clay and want to do handbuilding, I highly recommend the SlabMat. The larger size will run you $10 and the clay won't stick. Available from The Ceramic Shop.
Woodgrain Mat: The Ceramic Shop carries various wood grain texture mats in different sizes. The one I used was purchased from The Big Ceramic Store.